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ATF National Laboratories


Role of ATF Laboratory

  • Examine evidence and determine if unconsumed flammable or ignitable liquids (accelerants) are present.
  • Classify all accelerants as one of the following:
    • gasoline (most commonly used)
    • kerosene
    • light petroleum distillate
    • medium petroleum distillate
    • heavy petroleum distillate
    • misc. (specialty solvents, alcohols, ether)
  • assist with sample collection at suspected arson scenes
  • assist agents with training state and local fire investigators
  • identify any containers, components, or related trace evidence

Collection & Packaging


  • your experience & available tools (sniffer, canine)
  • lined or unlined metal cans
  • Kapak bags: 1-800-kapak57

The lab will test a sample from each new batch of cans/bags that you purchase!

Remember: Lab analysis is always necessary to determine if accelerant is actually present.

Questioned Debris

Collect absorbent materials such as carpeting, wood, fabric, paper, and soil. These materials will retain accelerants if present.


    • clean metal paint cans (lined/unlined)
    • glass jars with screw-top lids
    • polyethylene bags (seal & place in airtight cans)

Don't Use:

    • paper or nylon bags
    • coffee cans with plastic and/or foil lids

Remember: Do not fill the container more than 3/4 full!


  • 2 milliliters (1/2 teaspoon) in a teflon-lined glass vial
  • if an accelerant and water layer are present, sample both
  • place vial into a small metal can filled with vermiculite
  • place can into a 6" x 6" x 6" box packed with vermiculite
  • if evidence is not hand-carried to the lab, place this small box into a 12" x 12" x 12" packed with vermiculite & properly label
  • do not send flammable or combustible liquids through the u.s. mail
  • agents should retain and securly store any excess accelerant

Containers Containing Suspected Accelerant

  • photograph prior to removal
  • if liquid is present inside container, remove a sample and package separately
  • do not handle container with bare hands or rub areas which may contain latent prints
  • package container according to latent fingerprint guidelines
  • seal all openings using a cap or stopper (cork is preferred) or package in airtight can

Example: Molotov Cocktail

If wick is wet or believed to contain an accelerant, package separately in an airtight can. Allow bottle to dry and package for latent prints.

Comparison Samples

Collect material which is the same as the questioned burned material but is believed not to contain accelerant.

Areas not exposed to fire or water damage
Areas in which the presence of accelerant is not suspected

Separate samples should be taken of each different type of "questioned" debris matrix.

Follow the same packaging guidelines used for questioned debris.

A "control" evidence container may also be requested.

Chemical Incendiaries

Fire starters, low explosives, hth/glycol mix, white phosphorus

Location: near easily ignitable objects

Detection: look for charred or melted containers -or- discolored flooring/concrete


  • Use rubber gloves and eye protection
  • Do not place sample directly into paint can!
  • Package and seal in polyethylene bags, then seal in metal can
  • Notify the lab that a chemical incendiary is suspected

Device Components

If you suspect that an accelerant is present, package in an airtight metal can!

No accelerant suspected? Plastic bags are acceptable.


  • All new cans should be securely sealed until their use at a fire scene.
  • Care should be taken to clear all debris from the lip of the can. This will ensure the can is properly sealed.
  • All tools used should be cleaned before and after working scene.
  • No tools should be used more than once during the evidence collection process unless the tool is properly cleaned between each evidence collection location.
  • Consider: using the lid of the can to scoop evidence -or- wear clean latex gloves and hand sample each suspected area.

Reprinted with permission.

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